The Florida Project is one of the best films of the last decade and one of my favourite films of all time. It’s also a movie whose name makes me wince when I hear almost anyone else mention it, because so many people – even people who like it – end up saying truly horrible things about its lead characters, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Halley (Bria Vinaite). Halley is the young mother of Moonee, and they’re part of the invisible homeless, living out of a single room in a motel called the Magic Castle in Kissimmee, Florida, near Disney World. The two main strands of the film are Moonee’s adventures with her friends Scooty, Dicky and Jancey, inspired by the Our Gang short films popular in Depression-era America, and Halley’s struggles to keep them off the street. There’s no real narrative throughline for Moonee, but Halley’s story is one of steadily escalating peril as the exploitation and indifference of others – and some bad decisions of her own – make it harder and harder for her to get by. She loses her job at a strip club because she refuses to have sex with a client. She loses her benefits because she loses her job (the circumstances were not considered extenuating). Unable to find work elsewhere, she starts selling stolen perfume to tourists and babysits Scooty in exchange for his mother, Ashley, giving her and Moonee stolen food from the diner where she works. When they fall out and Ashley cuts ties with her, Halley ends up, ironically, doing the exact sex work she lost her job over to pay rent. It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen about how poor people are punished for being poor (along with Wendy and Lucy) and it moved me more deeply than I can ever express.
I’ve been aware some people hate these characters since I saw The Florida Project in the cinema. I was homeless at the time, all alone in the smallest screen until five minutes through the ads, when a large contingent of very posh-looking older people joined me. When we reached the climactic scene, where Moonee finds out she’s going to be taken from Halley by child services and runs away so she can say goodbye to her friends, I was sobbing very hard. There’s a particular moment where the realisation sets in for Moonee. She’s trying to tell her friend Jancey that they’ll probably never see each other again and Jancey asks why. Moonee bursts into tears and starts wailing in pain and fear and sorrow because she can’t bring herself to say what’s happened. For reasons I will wonder about until the day I die, the rest of the people in my screening laughed. I was prepared to write it off as one of weird group of people with empathy problems, but then I sat through this horrible review of the film where Ben Mankiewicz calls Halley “the worst mother in the history of movies” and talks about how he spent most of the film wanting Moonee to be taken from her, and a dozen like it besides.
I don’t go in for casting aspersions on the morality or motives of people based on how they react to a work of art, but, I’m not gonna lie, it was very hard not to do it with a lot of people’s responses to The Florida Project. People would say Halley is an unfit mother and that, even if it was sad, Moonee would be better off in foster care and it just baffled me. Halley is kind of obnoxious, sure, and not all her choices are the best choices. She perhaps doesn’t monitor the children enough sometimes and she assaults Ashley in front of Scooty when Ashley criticises her for doing sex work. But, despite the poverty they live in, Halley keeps Moonee fed and sheltered and happy and safe. They live in awful conditions, but Moonee is happy, she’s a sweet, joyful, adventurous child whose mother lets her live in blissful ignorance of the world’s shittiness. No, she doesn’t have great prospects in life, but that’s because she’s a homeless child, not because Halley is “the worst mother in the history of movies”. And the idea that she’ll definitely, or even probably, be better off in foster care is absurd if you know even a little bit about it. It’s not just the horror stories – though God knows there are plenty of them – it’s the simple fact that, in most circumstances, separating a child from their parents is a harm in itself.
But that’s not what baffled me. I know people look down on homeless people, single mothers and sex workers. I know that poor people are villainised for doing things our society ignores or even lauds when rich people do them: one of the foundational principles of neoliberalism is that it’s bad for poor people to passively receive income for unemployment, but extremely good for the rich to passively receive income for already being rich. I know people think of child separation as a miracle solution to poverty, neglect and abuse. What baffled me is there’s a character in the film with these kinds of attitudes and he’s not the hero of the story.